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WisDOT Finally Completes Oconomowoc Bypass Project

Mon September 24, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

Work on the Oconomowoc bypass in Wisconsin essentially wrapped up last October — 46 years after it began. The idea for the 7.9-mi. (12.7 km) project originated after state-authorized preliminary engineering studies were launched in 1960 because local municipalities were concerned about congestion, truck traffic, pedestrian safety and crashes in the downtown area.

The Wisconsin Highway Commission, along with Jefferson and Waukesha counties, approved a route change for WIS 16, transferring it to a new northerly bypass. Its purpose is to route through-traffic, especially trucks, around the city off highways 16 and 67.

WIS 67 and WIS 16 are major components of the regional transportation network for local traffic in the two counties and for access to Lake Country. Formerly U.S. Highway 16, WIS 16 also is known as State Trunk Highway 16. Most of the 193.2-mi. (310 km) roadway was bypassed by Interstates 90 and 94 in the 1960s and 1970s. Originally paralleling the mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, much of it is routed with several federal, state and county highways.

The bypass, a four-lane, limited access divided highway, circles the city of Oconomowoc and the village of Lac La Belle to create a safer route and relieve congestion. It joins a segment of the WIS 67 bypass completed in 1992. Eventually, the bypass will cause the removal of the state highway designation from Wisconsin Avenue through the town of Oconomowoc.

Work Completed After Decades of Planning

First estimated at $30 million, construction costs reached approximately $32 million. James Liptack, project manager for WisDOT, said it’s “within our budget.” Despite the 1960 origin, the project has come in on schedule.

“Our main deadline was to have the project open by 2006 and that date was met,” Liptack explained, noting that landscaping and mitigation for wetland replacement projects are finishing up this year.

Because the bypass disturbed a wetland, project plans included creation of a 50-acre (20 ha) wetland southwest of WIS 67 and Lang Road. As Liptack explained, “For every acre of wetland we disturb, we have to re-create 1.5 acres.”

Native vegetation was used. In addition, a meandering stream that feeds into Rosenow Creek also was constructed.

Work began in earnest in 2002, with marsh excavation contracts, Liptack reported. In 2003 grading was performed on the East Leg; in 2004 grading was done on the West Leg.

“In 2005 we paved the East Leg and in 2006 we paved the West Leg.”

Work included grading, bridge and overpass construction and culvert installation. A sprawling interchange was added where the overpass meets Highway 16 in Ixonia.

The east portion of the project, between WIS 16 at the eastern edge of town and WIS 67 in Oconomowoc, opened in October 2005 — a month ahead of schedule, due to an extremely dry summer. This 3.8-mi. (6 km) section is now a four-lane divided highway with a park-and-ride lot at WIS 67.

“I don’t believe we had any thing that really surprised us,” Liptack reflected. “With a project this size, you will always have things that arise that aren’t truly expected and you will never satisfy everyone that you impact.”

Safety, Volume Concerns Continue

Not everyone is satisfied with the results. The bypass was designed to alleviate congestion and reduce accidents, but there are questions about whether the goal has been met. According to GM Today, Oconomowoc Mayor Maury Sullivan reported that preliminary results of a downtown traffic study indicate the reduction in downtown traffic isn’t as substantial as originally expected. The bypass provides some relief, but due to a population explosion not anticipated in 1960, congestion has not been satisfactorily alleviated — particularly considering the city’s goal of attracting pedestrians to shop and dine downtown.

Safety is another ongoing concern. Highway Z and Lisbon Road intersect the bypass; vehicles must cross eight lanes of traffic, including turn lanes. Traffic on the bypass doesn’t stop, focusing attention on speeds.

Two fatalities on the bypass within four-and-a-half months of completion of the bypass spurred Oconomowoc officials to call for more safety measures at the Lisbon Road and Highway Z intersection, where traffic on the two-lane local roads crosses eight lanes of the bypass. Alarmed by the fatalities, Mayor Sullivan acknowledged the risk, but pointed out that the Highway Z/Lisbon Road intersections are in the town of Oconomowoc, and the town has no authority to put up warning signs on the county roads.

“Speed limits weren’t lowered, but they did add signals at one intersection and reconfigure another to make it safer to cross,” Liptack said.

Actually, however, the Town Board did reduce the speed on Lisbon Road from 40 mph to 35 mph from the bypass east to County Highway P, and is considering lowering it to 30 mph on a residential section, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The speed limit has already been reduced on Highway Z, where there are large subdivisions. The speed limit on the bypass is 35 mph from its eastern end where it meets WIS 16 in the city, north to a bridge over the Oconomowoc River. At that point, it increases to 45 mph until just north of the intersection with Highway Z, where it increases to 55 mph.

WisDOT Southeast Regional Office announced additional steps to enhance safety. Both WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration safety and design team reviewed the crashes, issuing a report stating that “overall, the state has good design practices,” adding, “in many instances, the state should be commended for exceptional design practice.”

Nevertheless, recommended upgrades and enhancements included adding lighting and traffic islands and improving signage at Lisbon Road. The federal report reviewed four bypasses with higher-than-average crash sites to provide a broad look at best practices for construction of all bypasses statewide. It suggested that the state go beyond “nominal design and operation practices” because bypasses “are unique roads for the state that require more attention” than other rural roads.

Enhancements added to Highway Z per FHWA recommendations include:

• Moving and removing signs to reduce clutter/improve visibility

• Installation of advance route markers

• Installation of slotted left turn lanes

• Installation of street lighting

Enhancements added to Lisbon Road per FHWA recommendations include:

• Moving and removing signs to reduce clutter/improve visibility

• Installation of advance intersection warning signs

• Installation of slotted left turn lanes

• Installation of street lighting

Enhancements added to the bypass per FHWA recommendations include:

• Installation of a yield sign in the median, along with geometric changes at the County Highway Z intersection

• Installation of a center-raised island at the intersection to improve visibility

• Installation of traffic control signal and intersection lighting at the Lisbon Road intersection

• Installation of oversized speed limit signs

Although some signage was removed, specific changes suggested for the Lisbon Road intersection include the erection of additional yield and other signs, as well as the construction of “pork chop islands to make stop signs more visible.

As Liptack noted, traffic signals have been installed at Lisbon Road and signage has been improved at both intersections. He considers the bypass safe, but admits that traffic volume will continue to increase now that work has been completed.

With improvements implemented at the Lisbon Road intersection, attention has been redirected to the Highway Z intersection, especially with construction of a new school in the works. WisDOT agreed to install a stoplight, but not quickly enough for Oconomowoc officials.

The school is slated to open in August 2008 and additional adjacent acreage is being considered for a satellite operation of the YMCA. However, intersections are evaluated on the basis of existing traffic every three years, usually at the request of the municipality.

The municipality has not yet asked WisDOT to study that particular intersection, but Oconomowoc police chief Dave Beguhn indicated that he believed it should be installed soon, due to heavier traffic and the “close calls” he has witnessed. CEG

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